Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13. Preached (well, something like this was preached) 11/9/08.
"I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies" - what a passage to get when coming to an Episcopal Church! But, it is all too easy to become impressed with our own solemn assemblies, both religious and civil. We have been through a season especially heavy with the latter. And that season isn't really over. We're coming to Thanksgiving, a holiday both civil and religious. We'll soon enough experience the religious seasons of Advent and Christmas; and we'll hardly be past Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism when we come to the civil assembly of the Inauguration.
"I take no pleasure in your burnt offerings...
But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."
For many of us this Inauguration will be special, and special in a way that speaks particularly of justice. Legal slavery ended perhaps 150 years ago; but the legal vestiges - economic and literacy requirements that prevented African-Americans from participating with anything approaching equality in the political, economic, and cultural life of the nation - were only successfully challenqed in living memory. And they didn't happen all at once by any means! Step by step, from Truman's integration of the military, to Brown vs. the Board of Education, to the Voting Rights Act, things changed. Step by step, from the brave children of Topeka and Little Rock, to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to the summer of the Freedom Riders and the bridge at Selma, old ways were challenged. Not all at once, but step by step; and if, contrasted with 300 years of legal or economic slavery it appeared short, for those who lived through it, it seemed - indeed, it was - a lifetime. Is it any wonder we have heard so many say, "I hoped it would happen someday, but I never thought it would happen in my lifetime."
And so we look to this Inauguration, and it speaks to us of justice, doesn't it? Well, yes and no.
"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Of course there is something of justice about this election and this inauguration, something we can and should celebrate. On the other hand, this is not justice accomplished; it is only one step forward. There is much to celebrate; but if we imagine that this means things are now just, that our work is over, this Inauguration will be just one more solemn assembly - self-satisfying, but insufficient. That’s especially true for us in the Church. If we come to this Eucharistic celebration, as the Eucharistic Prayer says, “for solace only, and not for strength,” this too will be just one more solemn assembly – self-satisfying, but not sufficient. It is important that we recognize that, while we have seen an important landmark, we haven’t experienced a sea change. We celebrate this moment that speaks of justice, but we also recognize that the world hasn’t really changed.
And that can be distressing. It’s all too easy to hope, to imagine that we’ve achieved justice, and to become depressed when it turns out this was only another step forward. And in our distress it is all too easy to become dejected and immobilized.
In a way I think that’s what happened with the wise and foolish virgins. Think about it. There wasn’t any real difference between the lamps of the wise and the foolish virgins. They worked: when lit, they shed bright light. There wasn’t any real difference between the virgins as virgins. All were looking forward to the party, waiting for the bridegroom. However, the foolish virgins weren’t prepared for a long night. They were just as enthusiastic as the wise virgins, and their lights were just as bright; but they weren’t prepared for the long haul.
By the same token, we need to be prepared for the long haul. We can celebrate this step forward, but we also need to be prepared for the fact that the world hasn’t really changed. We are. after all, the people called to proclaim God’s presence in the world. We are called to participate in God’s efforts for justice, to help make the presence of the Kingdom present even in our own time and place. That means proclaiming the presence of God, not just in our celebrations, but also in the long, often dark times between them. That means being prepared not just for the party, but also for the long night.
If we fail in that, our solemn assemblies, however wonderful they are, will indeed be empty show, perhaps satisfying to us, but certainly not to God. However, if we work for justice, if we work to demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom even in our own time, our assemblies will be more than empty parties. They will be landmarks, signs of hope as we wait for God to bring the Kingdom in fullness.